Last week I counted down my books of the year 10-6.
If you want to see if you’ve read what I’ve read, here’s the list.
I’ve also been naughty and bought too many books and here’s that list.
In at Number 5
The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi - Andrew McConnell Stott (also What Blest Genius?)
I’m starting with a cheat. I read two Andrew McConnell Stott books and they were both great fun. He has a real skill at telling a fun story, emphasising the most fun parts and finding supplementary fun stories that don’t feel like filler.
I wrote about What Blest Genius here and The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi here. I think Joseph Grimaldi edges it slightly. While the central story of Jubilee plays far more into my interests, the sheer range and lunacy of the side stories in Grimaldi were too fun to ignore. A book that includes a craze for a ten-year-old playing Hamlet, a clown sailing a ship through a storm and a trained dog called Moustache, is one that has to be in a top ten somewhere.
Moonfleet - J. Meade Falkner
I wrote about Moonfleet here. It’s hard to say any more about it, this book is exciting, well constructed with clear and interesting characters going on exciting journeys. The set pieces are put together extremely well and the whole book wraps up movingly and satisfyingly.
The Color Purple - Alice Walker
This is very unfair, because I’d always assumed The Color Purple by Alice Walker was boring because it was made into a prestige film that won Oscars (a film I’ve never seen). However, when I saw it at a local book-swap I gave it a look because I recognised the name. The copy I picked up had the name anglicised into ‘colour’ and had been published by The Coventry Evening Telegraph as the third in a series of ‘Great Family Reads’. I read the first page and was utterly shocked, while it seemed like a great read, it is certainly not a good choice for a family bed time.
The first page features a paedophilic-incest-rape, performed and described terribly matter-of-factly. Shortly afterwards the baby conceived by that act is taken away. Not only were the events terribly shocking but the tone of normality made them more so. Celie lives in a society where, as a poor, Black woman, she is utterly disregarded, mounted by men as they please and passed off to another family because she can keep a household fed and clean. Her world is so narrow and her place in it so low that she barely registers or questions it at first.
I was amazed at how expressive the telegrammatic style could be. When she says, ‘Not much funny to me.’ She sums up how little in her life has been something she could laugh at - there were many other incidences of this throughout.
What made the book truly wonderful was how, despite being ‘nothing at all’, she does grow. First she asserts, ‘I am here,’ and from there she even finds family, purpose, talents and hope. The first key to this is Shug, a blues singer with a tarnished reputation. It’s her admiration and love of Shug that starts her progression. Shug even shows her how to love her body. But Shug isn’t the only one. She accumulates all sorts of broken, wonky people into her found family, even finding space for the husband foisted on her who abused her so. That’s what I loved about the book, every person in it developed and changed and they did it because of the impact of the other characters around them. That we reach a happy ending at all is because of the resilience of the community that Celie builds around her.
Which is to say nothing of the sub-plot about Celie’s sister, finding her own family. The discussions of God that both women have, their refashioning of God into an ‘it’ that can be found anywhere rather than another male with a fragile ego. There’s some very interesting discussions on white people, how the characters in the book almost see them like dogs, they may seem friendly and wag their tails but you should always be wary of their bite. There’s interesting talk about sexuality, about how many of the male characters try to project strength by beating down before discovering joy in something more community.
It’s a short book but it says a lot.
The Monk - Matthew Lewis
I wrote about The Monk here. Did I use the phrase ‘ne plus ultra’? If not, I should have, It’s the that of Gothic books. Everything Gothic books has been working towards at that point is accomplished by The Monk in fine, entertaining and grandstanding style. The book even manages to award the stiffness that afflicts later Gothic works. It’s bonkers, it’s genuinely disturbing at times and it’s very memorable.
The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is a genuine classic, a masterful blend of tight plotting, varied and interesting narrative voices and characters that burst out of the page.
It starts with a sly joke about how the book has been created because the legal system needs too much ‘lubricating by the oil of gold’ to be the proper place to lay out the story and set the record straight. It then warns the reader that the book will be told in a number of different voices, much like witnesses in a trial. These voices are one of the main triumphs of the book. The first is Walter Hartright, he essentially takes the part of prosecutor and his is the most neutral. There’s also the diaries of Marian Halcombe, packed with her forthrightness, bravery and intelligence. There are the voices of various accountants, lawyers and functionaries that show their understanding of their positions. Then there’s Fairlie’s account, a whiny, petulant piece full of complaint and blame. Finally, there’s the narrative of Count Fosco, as amoral, grandiloquent and strangely appealing as the character himself. Victoria novels, especially these serialised ones, sometimes get a bad reputation for eking out a story in long, needless prose but the switching of voices in this book not only adds a range of flavours to the book but show Collins’s skill at ventriloquism. Although I love his friend and mentor, Charles Dickens, the Inimitable could not have put himself in so many roles.
As for the plot, it starts proper with Walter Hartright walking down the Finchley Road at one in the morning and meeting a woman who seems a little ‘off’ though not dangerous, so he helps her out. As someone who lives a little away from that road, I have often met such people whilst coming home late at night, though none have embroiled me in a labyrinthine plot of abduction, identity theft and false imprisonment. The reader is given the pieces of the main plot fairly early on but because the villains themselves are concocting the plot as the book goes on, the reader can’t predict ahead too far as the villains haven’t got there yet. It walks that beautiful tightrope of being feasible whilst being outlandish and has a particular spiciness because one of the villains is fiendish but stupid and the other is too clever to cause harm where it’s not necessary.
There are some huge coincidences in the book and it’s a weak and slightly peculiar conceit of getting Hartright to go on a barely explored Patagonian adventure with disease, cannibals and shipwrecks - but the big things land right and comeuppances are as sad as they are satisfying. A big, driving element of the plot is the keeping of Sir Percival Glyde’s Secret. While The Secret doesn’t seem worth all the energy and heartache it took to keep, it ties in with the theme of how flimsy such things as identity, position, wealth and sanity really are.
If the book soars above many others, it’s because of the characters. Walter Hartright is a decent-enough hero character and his love interest, and the centre of shenanigans, Lucy isn’t an awful example of that Victorian ideal child-woman. The fact that some of her experiences actually reduce her as a person and make her more pathetic than before is actually quite moving and show her relative agency before.
Marian Halcombe, her half-sister is a different prospect. She’s initially described as a butterface with a moustache but such ‘deficiencies’ allow the writer to treat her as a proper agent in the story. She’s smart, sneaky when needed, strong and loyal. She speaks her mind and reads a room. She makes plans and acts them out. She’s great. Unfortunately, she does get relegated to her sister’s keeper but her strength in the first half, and the respect she gets from Fosco keeps her flame alive in the second.
Fosco is a brilliant character. He’s undeniably evil, utterly amoral and goal orientated but he does have a sense of kindness (if principally to small, cute animals) and his intelligence dictates that he doesn’t cause suffering he doesn’t deem absolutely necessary. Marian says she is won over by him despite herself, and I, as a reader, found myself won over by him too. The biggest suggestion of his darkest side, the utter devotion of his wife, he attributes simply to that, devotion. I’m not convinced there isn’t a far nastier backstory there somewhere.
I also loved Anne, the woman in white, an utterly unreliable witness but deeply intriguing. I also has a huge soft spot for the wimp, Fairlie, he’s so deliciously, selfishly pathetic.
It may be no surprise, seeing as I have gushed over this book, but I thought it wonderful and would easily recommend it.